The years 2011 through 2015 are full of Civil War sesquicentennials. While Pennsylvanians and many others will be focusing this summer on the Battle of Gettysburg, this year also marks the 150th anniversary of Battle of Vicksburg, Miss.
Both Gettysburg and Vicksburg represent turning points in the Civil War. Even though they are half a continent away, the Northern victories occurred just a day apart, Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, and Vicksburg on July 4 of that year.
The grave of a Medal of Honor winner from Ohio who is buried in Paris Cemetery, Hanover Township, sheds some light on the Siege of Vicksburg, Miss., and the strategic need to control the Mississippi River.
Uriah H. Brown, who was a member of what is known as the “volunteer storming party” or “forlorn hope” on May 22, 1863, at Vicksburg was an Ohioan, but Washington County can claim him as one of its own because of his final resting place. He appears, according to old U.S. Census records, to have lived at least part of his life in Washington County.
The website of the National Park Service, National Military Park in Vicksburg, tells readers that both United States President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis placed great importance on Vicksburg, Miss. “President Davis knew it was vital to hold the city for the Confederacy to survive. President Lincoln wanted the key to gain control of the river and divide the South.”
Eric Wittenberg, in his blog, “Rantings of a Civil War Historian,” describes May 22, 1863, at Vicksburg in terms that make it sound like the equivalent of the D-Day invasion at Pointe-du-Hoc, Normandy, with soldiers scaling cliffs, but without the technology available to World War II soldiers.
Battle for the Mississippi
Before piecing together parts of Uriah H. Brown’s story, it’s perhaps best to allow a historian to explain the Battle of Vicksburg within the context of the Civil War.
Dr. Tom Mainwaring, Washington & Jefferson College history professor, in response to an emailed request to discuss the significance of Vicksburg, cited primarily James McPherson’s account of the Vicksburg campaign in the book, “The Battle Cry of Freedom.”
“This Confederate stronghold was the only major obstacle that stood in the way of Union forces’ command of the entire river. Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant had pushed their way south into Mississippi, and Union gunboats could navigate the Mississippi River southward until they came within range of Vicksburg’s guns. Union forces also controlled the southern reaches of the river, having captured New Orleans in April of 1862. Confederates held only a 200-mile stretch of river between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, La.
“Vicksburg, sometimes dubbed the ‘Gibraltar of the West,’ proved to be a tough nut to crack. It sat on top of a 200-foot bluff, which gave Confederate guns a commanding view of the river below. Swamps and bayous to the north also afforded Vicksburg protection from attack. The only solid ground lay to the east. Here Confederate defenders had constructed a maze of trenches and rifle pits that presented the most heavily fortified position to date in the Civil War.
“Vicksburg had 30,000 defenders under the command of Gen. John C. Pemberton. In addition, General Joseph Johnston had another 30,000 Confederate troops in the vicinity. Grant’s total forces numbered about 70,000.
“Grant ordered a direct assault by his entire army on May 19. This assault broke, however, when it ran into Vicksburg’s formidable defenses. Undaunted, Grant ordered another such assault on May 22,” the date of Uriah Brown’s valor for which he would be commended 31 years later.
“This time the results were even more disastrous. Union losses during this assault were nearly equal to those suffered in several weeks of fighting previously. Unwilling to sacrifice any more troops, Grant after this assault decided to wait the Confederate defenders of Vicksburg out. Knowing that the garrison was surrounded and had no genuine prospects of relief, Grant laid siege to Vicksburg. Although there were occasional skirmishes after May 22 and several attempts to blow holes in the Confederate defenses by undermining them, the major fighting at Vicksburg had ceased.
“Faced with dwindling supplies, even less food, and no hope of relief, Pemberton on July 4 surrendered to Grant. The Mississippi River was completely in Union hands. As Abraham Lincoln famously remarked after hearing news of these surrenders, ‘The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.’ The Confederacy had been split in two.”
Laying his log
Brown, a private in Company G, 30th Ohio Infantry, won his Medal of Honor for his actions on May 22, 1863, the second assault on Vicksburg’s defenses.
His citation, issued Aug. 15, 1894, reads, “Despite the death of his captain at his side during the assault, he continued carrying his log to the defense ditch.
“While he was laying his log in place he was shot down and thrown into the water. Unmindful of his own wound he, despite the intense fire, dragged five of his comrades from the ditch, wherein they lay wounded, to a place of safety.”
Unfortunately, the phrase “laying his log” isn’t exactly crystal clear to someone trying to envision Brown in action that day. Rea Redd, professor and Eberly Library director at Waynesburg University, and a docent at the Capt. Thomas Espy Post No. 153 of the Grand Army of the Republic at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in the town of Carnegie, wrote in response to an email, “Leads are slim on Uriah Brown. Vicksburg, which is under-written, like Gettysburg is over-written, books have next to nothing on the 100-plus Medal of Honor winners at Vicksburg.
“What I have found is that a unit called the ‘forlorn hope,’ maybe 30th Ohio, were the first to charge a fort with ladders, which would be the ‘log.’ In front of the fort was a moat-like ditch.”
We imagine a ladder with two sides, or “legs” with rungs between them, Redd wrote. “This would required milled lumber. Possibly, the ladder was a log with holes drilled in the sides. In the holes were inserted pegs, hence a ladder.”
Redd was also able to contact Terrence Winschell, National Park Superintendent for Vicksburg, to offer some background.
“There were 122 Medals of Honor award for action at Vicksburg, of which 78 were awarded to members of the ‘volunteer storming party,’ or ‘forlorn hope’ as it was called. In preparation for the May 22 assault, 150 men volunteered to carry forward bundles of cane, planks and scaling ladders to bridge” a ditch, Winschell wrote in response to Redd’s inquiry.
“The survivors of the ‘forlorn hope’ who were still alive in the 1890s were awarded the Medal of Honor,”
In his “Rantings” blog, Wittenberg said Sherman had called for 150 volunteers to serve as a storming party. These volunteers would spearhead Sherman’s assault and would prepare the way for the main attack. ‘As these men would be certain to draw the enemy’s fire, there was little probability of any of them returning alive, and on that account it was decided not to order any man to go, but to depend entirely on volunteers.’Due to the undue risk, none but unmarried men would be permitted the volunteer. “These men would build a bridge over the ditch, and plant their scaling ladders against the embankment. The main body would follow behind and would use those scaling ladders to attack the fort.
“On the morning of May 22, the storming party made its way through a ravine. In the ravine waited the scaling ladders and a pile of roughly hewn logs and some piles of lumber. The advance party was to carry the logs, two men to a log, make a dash for the entrenchments, and throw the logs across the ditch to form the basis for a bridge.
On open ground, “about half of them were shot down.When the survivors reached the ditch, they were unable to construct the bridges, as too many logs had been lost along the way when their bearers were shot down. ‘For about two hours, we had a severe and bloody battle, but at every point we were repulsed,’ remembered Sherman.
“Of the storming party 85 percent were either killed or dangerously wounded, and few of them escaped without a wound of some kind.’
“Eighty-one survivors of the storming party were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor in the ‘forlorn hope.’ More Medals of Honor were bestowed for this action than for any other single battlefield action in American history.”
“Looks like my hunch was right,” Redd said of Brown’s Medal of Honor. “Of the nine Vicksburg Medal of Honor winners from the advance storming party, Brown’s citation is different from the others’ citations. He rescued five wounded comrades during the assault.”
In “Meigs County, Ohio, and Her Soldiers in the Civil War,” author Lois Helmers noted that the 30th Ohio Volunteer Infantry was organized at Camp Chase in Columbus on Aug. 28, 1861, to serve for three years. By the time they mustered out in 1865, they had marched 13,200 miles. Little wonder that many of them were shoeless.
Little known about Brown
What do we know about Uriah H. Brown, aside from May 22, 1863, and the history of his unit? Very little.
The website, “Find A Grave” gives his date of birth as July 4, 1841, and a West Virginia index gives his father’s name as William Brown.
His given name happens to be the same as a noteworthy warrior of the Bible, “Uriah the Hittite” in the Old Testament book 2 Samuel, Chapter 11. King David told his captain, Joab, “Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is the fiercest.” The passage proved to be strangely prophetic of the life of Uriah Brown and his actions at Vicksburg.
Sharon R. Watson, who works in the local history and genealogy department of the Piqua (Ohio) Public Library, was able to find some information about Brown. She is also a member of the Miami County Genealogical and Historical Society.
In Newberry Township, Miami County, during the 1850 census, living with John and Mary Darner and was a 9-year-old Uriah Brown in Covington, Ohio, the place in the “Medal of Valor” story as to where he was born.
“Dates fit,” Watson noted. This also matches Brown’s place of birth on the Medal of Honor web page.
There are records of a Uriah Brown in 1860 and 1870 censuses, but Watson said it is hard to determine without further research if it is the same person.
Where Brown entered the 30th Ohio regiment and began his military service is not recorded, but Watson was able to trace a bare outline.
“In census records, if I have the right person, he appears to have moved a lot. I have a Uriah H. Brown, wife Sarah, child, Ella, in 1920 in Brooke County, W.Va., in 1910 and in 1900, they are in Washington County, Pa.
“I found a record of him being in the Dayton branch, Montgomery County, Ohio, U.S. National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. He was admitted in 1918 at the age of 76 years.
Records show Brown died Jan. 24, 1927, in Holliday’s Cove, which is now part of downtown Weirton, W.Va., Hancock County, in West Virginia’s northern panhandle.
The 230-pound marker next to Steubenville Pike is four inches thick, and because of its prominent place beside the road, it serves as a reference point to Brown’s grave, which would otherwise go unnoticed.
Brown’s name is recorded in the Washington County veteran’s grave registration, entered by E. S. Caldwell, on April 4, 1927, perhaps because the predecessor of the Department of Veterans Affairs would reimburse a soldier’s survivors for part of the cost of a burial or tombstone.
Barry Grimm, director of Veterans Affairs for Washington County, does not find it unusual that there is quite a lag between Brown’s act of heroism and his recognition with a Medal of Honor.
“It happens all the time,” Grimm said. “It has to go through Congress.”